What is Noir Fiction?

Laramie County Library’s Virtual Book Discussion Group recently discussed Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer.  Some reviewers referred to the novel as darkly humorous and stylistically noir.  But what is meant by the term “noir” when used to describe fiction?

In its simplest meaning, noir is the French word for black.  As a genre, the term is linked to both literary and cinematic expressionism–a movement within the larger cultural movement of modernism in which philosophical and artistic themes of industrialization, urbanism, alienation, and psychological nuance are conceptualized through a subjective and often fragmentary lens.  Expressionism uses colors, symbols, and language to convey mood or emotions.  In this sense, noir might be more accurately defined as a style rather than a genre.

In fiction, it is considered a sub-genre of crime fiction and though many of its protagonists are rogue homicide detectives or jaded private investigators, noir is not synonymous with detective fiction.  Contemporary noir fiction frequently features protagonists who are not law enforcement figures; they may be victims, victimizers, small or big-time criminals, or anyone who is morally flawed, fatalistic, or down on their luck.  Themes are still dark, nihilistic, and violent.  Settings are often gritty and urban, but can also be set in more rural areas.  The most prominent aspect of noir settings is corruption, which is often accompanied by decay.  Dark humor may or may not be present.

Consider this definition provided by WorldCat Genres: “Taken from the French word meaning ‘darkness’ or ‘of the night,’ noir is a category of modern crime fiction.  Used for fiction of crime and detection, often in a grim urban setting, featuring petty, amoral criminals and other down-and-out characters, and permeated by a feeling of disillusionment, pessimism and despair.”  Many of these themes are present in Braithwaite’s sharp, quirky novel.  It’s a disarmingly enchanting read and is more shrewdly perceptive than it appears at first glance.  Check it out—either for your own book discussion group or for a breezy vacation read.

Want to participate in our next conversation? RSVP for August’s Virtual Book Discussion Group and visit the 3rd floor Ask Here desk to pick up your copy of The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

~Oranda Davis, Reference Specialist